Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, September 07, 2007

A curious complacency

Although it is widely regarded as essentially a folk belief, in fact there has been at least suggestive evidence dating back decades that artificial food colorings, and perhaps other additives, contribute to the behaviors classified by the DSM-IV as "attention deficit hyperactivity disorder." You may have heard that British researchers have confirmed this association, as reported here, rather curiously, in the CNN business section. I can't link to the original Lancet article, which is subscription only, but I have read it, and I can tell you that this is an absolutely gold standard study which absolutely nails it.

The researchers had children consume juice drinks which looked and tasted identical -- and they put that to a separate test first -- but which contained one of two different mixes of food colorings plus sodium benzoate, or none of the above (designated "placebo," something of a misnomer in this situation). They assessed children's hyperactivity based on structured ratings by parents and teachers, and a computer test for older children, 8-9 years old. The parents and teachers had no knowledge of whether the children were consuming active mix or "placebo," otherwise known as natural fruit juice. Children who consumed both active mixtures had higher hyperactivity scores, although the difference was below the arbitrary statistical significance threshold of .05 for mix B. (Although it did meet a less stringent signifcance level of .1 which is sometimes used.) Not all children were affected equally, of course. It is a subset which was susceptible, which suggests that a larger sample would likely show highly significant effects for both mixtures.

While the headline of the CNN story blames sodium benzoate, in fact it is impossible to determine whether it is sodium benzoate, artificial colors, or both, which are responsible for this effect. But what I want to emphasize is the vast, collective yawn which has greeted this news.

Let's be clear about this folks. I have been quite critical of the widespread diagnosing of children with a supposed "disease" which largely consists of normal childhood behaviors which are incompatible with the regimentation required in school. However, whether the problem is the behaviors themselves, the diagnostic label, or the drug treatment, it's a big problem which causes great disruption and damage to the lives of innumerable children and their families. It turns out that chemicals added to foods that children consume in large amounts -- notably soda and candy -- contribute to these behavioral problems. In other words, the "food" manufacturers -- Coca Cola, Pepsi, Hershey -- are massively poisoning children. It has been proved as cleanly and completely as you can prove anything. It's a fact.

Now, you would think that there would be a lot of attention paid to this. Maybe members of Congress would be talking about banning these substances from food. Maybe this would be a front page story here and there. Maybe people would be upset by it. But it's getting less attention than the search for Steve Fosset.

It's a weird world indeed.

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